Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 8, 2006

means everything|[10/08/06].

Editor’s note: This is the last in a six-part series chronicling the history of high school football in Warren County.

Vicksburg High coach Alonzo Stevens was preparing for a speech at a Port City Kiwanis breakfast in June when he heard the words that made his eggs turn sour:.

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&#8220So how are you going to do with Warren Central this year?”.

Stevens graciously shrugged off the question. After 25 years of hearing it, it wasn’t too hard to do.

For the last quarter century, nearly every coach and player at Vicksburg and Warren Central has heard the same question and developed the same response. The rivalry has become the featured attraction on the Warren County football schedule, a game that doesn’t happen until November but is talked about year-round.

&#8220I’m trying to get ready for Gentry,” Stevens said with a laugh, referring to Vicksburg’s opening-night opponent. &#8220But that just shows you how intense it is. You just have to smile and keep going with that.”

In the 25 years since the rivalry began, the relative lack of success of St. Aloysius and Porters Chapel has heightened the focus on the game between the county’s biggest schools.

Since reaching the inaugural Class B championship game in 1981, St. Al has been remarkably mediocre. The Flashes have won five or six games 10 times since 1981 but, strangely, have only won fewer than four games five times.

PCA enjoyed some success in the early 1980s and again in the last two seasons – including a run to the MPSA Class A semifinals in 2005 – but had plenty of lean years in between. The school disbanded its football program for a lack of interest from 1988-90, then had a horrid 5-40 record from 1991-95 when it was getting back on its feet.

That left Vicksburg and Warren Central to carry the county’s football torch.

Through the 1970s, when Warren Central was dominating the smaller schools of the Little Dixie Conference and Vicksburg was competing with the premiere teams of the Big 8, fans of both teams hotly debated which was better.

The conference system in place at the time prevented it. The setup was similar to today’s Division I-A college system, where teams play for their own conference titles but no true national title. Mississippi’s high school teams of the 1970s played for championships in their own conference, and perhaps in a bowl game against teams from other conferences, but the state championships of the day were purely mythical. Most times, the winner of the Big 8 – the conference with the largest schools and most members – was considered the state champion.

Although the talent level of both Vicksburg and Warren Central was about equal by the late 70s, neither had an open spot on the schedule. The larger schools in the Big 8 – whose membership had swelled to nearly two dozen by 1979 – played each other and had little to gain in terms of skill or reputation by playing a smaller team from the LDC.

Little Dixie schools, for their part, were typically outmanned by the Big 8 teams and rarely made the leap. LDC schools did play teams from smaller conferences, however, such as the Big Black and Capital Athletic Conference.

Finally, in the early 1980s, things changed. The Mississippi High School Activities Association adopted a state playoff system that led to the downfall of the old conferences. Vicksburg resigned from the Big 8, WC was out of the Little Dixie, and on Oct. 16, 1981 they finally met on the field to settle the lingering debate.

&#8220It was what you play for. It was played for a lot of years without ever being on the schedule,” said Jim Taylor, an assistant coach at WC from 1966-96 and now the head coach at St. Aloysius.

Warren Central entered that first game as an underdog, despite being ranked No. 2 in the state and having one of the largest student populations in the state. The idea of a Little Dixie team competing with a Big 8 team still hung over their heads.

That night, however, WC proved it belonged. In front of a crowd estimated at 10,000, the Vikings scored all of the game’s points in the second half to claim a 17-0 win. WC’s Jim Warren rushed for 130 yards, John Pittman and Harrison Havard each scored a touchdown, and the Vikings threw only two passes the whole game.

&#8220Probably, we were considered underdogs because they were in the Big 8 and that’s all the press and people talked about, was the Big 8,” said Curtis Brewer, then an assistant coach at Warren Central and now the school’s head coach. &#8220By that time our numbers had gone up, the program was well-established, and I don’t think those kids were intimidated by it. They were motivated by it, being considered the stepchild.”

The win started a long trend in the series – VHS lost the first nine games against the Vikings and has only beaten them three times in 25 meetings (1990, 2002 and 2005) – and foreshadowed the shape of football in Warren County for the next quarter century.

Since 1981, Warren Central has supplanted VHS as the dominant football force in the county, making a state record 21 straight playoff appearances and winning two state championships, in 1988 and ‘94. Vicksburg has had its moments, including runs to the Class 5A semifinals in 1990, ‘91 and 2001, but has largely taken a backseat to its younger cousin’s success.

Even in the early 1990s, when Vicksburg was ranked among the top five teams in the state and featured two future NFL players on its defense in Michael Myers and Mark Smith, it was overshadowed by some of Warren Central’s best teams.

Brewer said he’s at a loss to explain the Vikings’ dominance over the course of the series with Vicksburg.

&#8220It’s just one year at a time,” Brewer said. &#8220We’ve just been fortunate, I suppose. On a number of occasions they had extremely good football teams. For whatever reason, it’s just a roll of the dice.”

The Warren Central victories have included blowouts (a 55-15 rout in 1982, along with seven other wins by 20 points or more), shutouts (10 in 25 meetings with the Gators) and close calls (four wins by less than a touchdown, including two in overtime). There also was one memorable collapse – or comeback, depending on whether you bleed red or green.

In 1996, Vicksburg scored on its first four possessions and led 23-0 midway through the second quarter of the game played at Memorial Stadium, only to see Warren Central score 35 unanswered points and win 35-23. Lamar Davis ran for 250 yards and three touchdowns to lead WC’s comeback.

When asked which game in the series stood out most, every coach who has been around either program long enough quickly pointed to the 1996 contest.

&#8220At halftime we had a couple of old Vikings come into the locker room and give two or three speeches. Then we had some of our guys step up and give a speech. So it was Vikings old and new,” said Josh Morgan, who quarterbacked WC to the comeback win. &#8220It was confidence in the air. We never panicked. It was one of those special games where we knew we were going to win at halftime.”

The little brother-big brother aspect of the WC-VHS rivalry may have intensified it at first. After that, it has been ingrained in succeeding generations of players and fans to the point it became a true family feud. And since 1989, that’s exactly what it’s become.

That was when the Vicksburg Warren School District consolidated. No longer were county residents and city residents sent to separate schools. Since then, neighbors, friends and relatives have all played with and against each other in the rivalry.

&#8220They wind up seeing and being with each other just about every night of the week, and it’s kinpeople too,” Brewer said. &#8220But there still is that separation and a rivalry about it.”

Although fans and some players enjoy the trash talking the rivalry breeds, coaches hate it. Each year, they remind their players the week before the game not to say anything inflammatory. The focus on the game also puts the coaches in the spotlight. While they’re paid to win championships, the focus on the rivalry can always add an asterisk – good or bad – to the rest of the season.

&#8220It makes it hard for us,” said Stevens, the only VHS coach to have beaten WC twice, in 2002 and 2005. &#8220It has become Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Alcorn and Jackson State. It’s hard to get up after that game. It drains you a lot. It’s a community event. It’s great for high school football. But it’s rough on the coaches.”

Like Stevens said, the yearlong build-up to the game can drain a lot of energy from a team by the time it’s over.

Over the years, the date of the game has alternated between mid-October and the final game of the season in November. When it has been played in October – nine times in all, with the last coming in 1992 – WC and VHS won 46.7 percent of their playoff openers (a 7-8 record) and are 11-14 overall in the playoffs.

In the 16 years the Gators and Vikings have tangled in November, they have won 38.5 percent of their first-round games (10-16) and are 17-25 overall in the postseason. Since 1995, both teams have won their first-round games in the same year only once.

&#8220In some instances, you put so much heart and preparation into that one game that you leave room for a little letdown,” Morgan said. &#8220There’s two ways to look at that game, and your seniors and leaders have to take it and figure out which is the best one.”

There are no plans to move the game to an earlier spot on the schedule, so for the near future the date and intensity of the rivalry figure to stay the same. Only the side doing most of the bragging may change.

Vicksburg’s 10-0 upset last season was just the Gators’ third win overall in the series, but second in the last four years and first at WC’s Viking Stadium.

While it’ll take the Gators at least another 20 years to draw even with the Vikings, a few more wins over the next decade will at least provide some comfort to their long-suffering fans when it comes to the biggest game of the year.

&#8220I always felt like you want to make it a rivalry. Everybody feels better when they say ‘this team has a chance to win,’” Stevens said. &#8220As long as we keep it in perspective of being just a game. I cheer 10 games a year for the Vikings.”